LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- "This is a terrific day," University of Louisville President James Ramsey said Wednesday only hours after the Atlantic Coast Conference voted to invite U of L to join the conference in all sports.
The news came after a vote of league presidents this morning, and after a week of intense lobbying on the part of administrators, athletic officials and coaches after the Big East Conference lost Rutgers to the Big Ten Conference and the ACC lost Maryland to the same league last week.
"Today is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of experience," Ramsey said in a Wednesday afternoon news conference.
U of L Athletic Director Tom Jurich said, "I couldn't be happier." Both men thanked the Big East Conference for the time the university spent there, but Jurich said, "Times change."
In a text message this morning, Rick Pitino said: "We're in."
The move caps a long and often frustrating period for U of L, which was voted into the Big East Conference on Nov. 5, 2003, and soon became a bystander in a wave of realignment that has rocked the college sports landscape.
Most recently, U of L was the loser in an 11th-hour negotiation to join the Big 12 Conference, with West Virginia receiving an invitation last October after a lobbying effort that included the intercession of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and both U.S. Senators from West Virginia.
Even this time, U of L went into the proceedings as an underdog. The ACC had never shown significant interest in U of L, with academic differences between the school and most of the ACC's membership deemed to large to overcome.
As well, Big East member UConn is situated in a larger television market and geographically is closer to some ACC membership, including Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which bolted the Big East for the ACC in September of last year.
But U of L athletic director Tom Jurich and president James Ramsey were able to sell a clean record of NCAA compliance, a major commitment to facilities, academic improvements for athletes and the general student population and, in the end, convince ACC presidents that the school could flourish given ACC backing, much as it moved forward after moving into the Big East.
U of L's recent conference history has been nomadic and sometimes treacherous. It competed in the Missouri Valley Conference in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1975, U of L became a charter member of the Metro 6 Conference, which later became the Metro Conference. In that league, the school experienced its greatest basketball success, with NCAA championships in 1980 and 1986.
In 1990, that league proposed expanding into a "Super Conference" that would include U of L, Boston College, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, East Carolina, Florida State, Memphis, Miami, South Carolina, Southern Miss and Tulane. In its latter years, that conference was marked by U of L trying to protect its basketball revenue and schools like Florida State trying to hang onto football money.
Two months after it was proposed, U of L football coach Howard Schnellenberger came out publicly against it, saying he wanted to play a national schedule, not teams like Memphis and Cincinnati. It didn't matter. In September of 1990 the Big East was formed, snatching away most of the Metro's more desirable football programs.
U of L, then, wound up in Conference USA. But that league, in some ways, was always seen as a stopover, even by U of L administrators. U of L fought that conference's football expansion and stood in the way of adding army and East Carolina until the conference threatened to sue U of L in 1996.
The Big East period saw huge gains in revenue for U of L, as much the result of the school's own investments as any windfall from the league. But the Big East gave U of L access to the Bowl Championship Series, and the school made its first Orange Bowl appearance in 2007, finishing the season ranked No. 6 in the nation.
It was also during the Big East era that U of L made the largest strides in its history in the so-called non-revenue sports. Its baseball team made a trip to the College World Series. Men's soccer reached the NCAA championship game, as did women's basketball.
The growth overall allowed U of L to expand Papa John's Cardinal Stadium from 42,000 seats to 55,000, and when the city of Louisville and state of Kentucky built the KFC Yum! Center on Louisville's waterfront with U of L men's basketball as the primary tenant, U of L increased its advantage as the most lucrative men's basketball program in the nation, out-earning all but the top 22 football programs in revenue in the 2011-12 season.
U of L's overall athletic revenues jumped from around $33 million before joining the Big East to a school record $87 million last year. In fact, that revenue total is more than any school in the ACC posted last season.
The move now allows U of L to operate without fear of being immediately shut out of college football's championship playoff system, due to go online in 2014. It also gives U of L football a tie-in with the Orange Bowl, a piece of what should be a much more lucrative conference television contract and membership in what will become the nation's most powerful men's basketball conference, with such schools as North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse, N.C. State and others.
But just as important, U of L won 10 Big East championships in various sports last season. The ACC will provide a home for all of those, unlike the Big 12, which would've left U of L looking for another conference for men's soccer and other sports.
Membership in the ACC could also help U of L hang onto football coaches. John L. Smith left U of L for a Big Ten program and Bobby Petrino left for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, and while ACC membership likely wouldn't stop present coach Charlie Strong from leaving for an SEC program if the opportunity was a good one, it does give U of L a better chance of hanging onto coaches.
It's a rather striking development, given that U of L never viewed the ACC as a likely destination because of the league's reluctance to take U of L seriously because of academic issues. Ramsey and others worked hard to show that U of L's mission academically has changed over the past 15 years, and circumstances surrounding the ACC and its own stability made officials there more receptive to U of L's overall program.
The Big 12 Conference was long viewed as U of L's best route to the college football playoff mainstream, but that league has shown little desire to expand beyond its current 10-team setup because of concerns over diluting its present revenue-sharing arrangement.
The move to the ACC likely kills any further U of L-to-the-Big 12 speculation, unless the ACC experiences further defections and major instability.
Privately, ACC officials are worried about just that. But for today, the hope is that the addition of U of L makes the ACC a more solid league.
It certainly offers U of L a more solid future.
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